Transparency Talk

Category: "Disaster Readiness" (3 posts)

Trends in Ebola Relief Funding
October 30, 2014

(Andrew Grabois is the manager of corporate philanthropy at the Foundation Center. This piece was originally featured on the GrantCraft blog.)

An analysis of figures compiled by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (OCHA) Financial Tracking Service shows that the global response to OCHA’s billion dollar appeal for the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has been an outlier. For example, looking at just  funding (not including uncommitted pledges) from  private individuals and organizations, we see that the current appeal for assistance in West Africa has yielded a fraction of what was raised for the Haitian and Japanese earthquakes and the typhoon that devastated the Philippines:

Doctors without BordersPartners in HealthInternational Medical Corps, and Direct Relief International all told the New York Times that fundraising has yielded nowhere near what they've received from previous appeals or what is needed to adequately respond to the current crisis.

While it is true that the totals for other humanitarian appeals reflect campaigns that have lasted for years, with some still ongoing, it is hard to imagine that the Ebola appeal will make up the difference or meet its funding requirements – at least not from private individuals and organizations. Doctors without BordersPartners in HealthInternational Medical Corps, and Direct Relief International all told the New York Times that fundraising has yielded nowhere near what they've received from previous appeals or what is needed to adequately respond to the current crisis. The American Red Cross, who raised almost $500 million for Haiti and more than $85 million for the Philippines, has so far received less than $3 million for Ebola - $2.8 million of which came from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

In addition to the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Commission (the executive body of the European Union) who continue to be major contributors to UN appeals for humanitarian assistance, the Ebola crisis has inspired normally staid financial institutions like the African Development Bank and the World Bank to become activist donors.  Mandated with providing low interest loans to developing countries for capital programs that promote foreign investment and international trade, the World Bank in particular has charged headlong into the Ebola crisis. Led by World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim, a trained medical doctor and anthropologist and former president of Dartmouth College, the Bank has pledged $218 million in grants (not loans) to combat the disease, with its first installment of $105 million reaching the governments of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea in just nine days. The World Bank's contribution is more than 12% of total contributions, second only to that of the U.S., who together account for 49% of all confirmed contributions and commitments:

Foundation Center tracks the response of charitable organizations and companies to humanitarian crises and it has compiled its own detailed figures for that universe of donors. Because Foundation Center does not distinguish between a pledge and a confirmed contribution, and works with a donor universe that does not include national governments, nongovernmental organizations, and private individuals, their figures will be different than those compiled by the United Nations. That being said, Foundation Center has identified 117 grants and gifts from foundations, charities, and companies worth more than $173 million. This is more than the total contribution from these donors to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, but significantly less than donations for the Haitian and Japanese earthquake relief efforts. What is interesting and unusual about the response to Ebola as captured by Foundation Center is the disposition of the donors, with corporate contributions making up 79% of the grants but only 21% of the total dollar value of contributions. In this appeal, family foundations (i.e. Bill Gates and Paul Allen) accounted for the lion’s share of contributions:

Not only have the donors changed, but so have the recipients. Foundation Center has found that the Ebola relief landscape is populated with an entirely new array of channels for funneling institutional contributions. At the forefront and on the front lines now are organizations unfamiliar to many if not most Americans, like Doctors Without Borders, Partners In Health, and Direct Relief International – the very same ones that were profiled in the New York Times because they were having so much trouble soliciting contributions from individuals. According to Foundation Center these relief organizations – and a few others like Samaritans Purse and International Medical Corps- account for 78% of all grants with a specified recipient:

Why has the Ebola appeal had so much trouble gaining traction with individuals in the U.S. and elsewhere?

Why has the Ebola appeal had so much trouble gaining traction with individuals in the U.S. and elsewhere? Pundits point to the hopelessness of a frighteningly high mortality rate, the absence of emotionally potent and encapsulating images, and a general unfamiliarity with West Africa. Perhaps, but just as likely, this reticence reflects an assessment  by ordinary citizens that the scope and possible consequences of the Ebola epidemic are just too overwhelming  for non-state solutions – especially when those solutions involve building a health care infrastructure on the fly in three countries, populated by 20,000 doctors and other medical professionals that have to be recruited, trained, transported and, if necessary,  evacuated, something only national governments and  international organizations acting in concert have the resources to do.

Foundation Center has made all information on Ebola-related grants from charitable organizations and companies available in an RSS feed, including details on grants, grantmakers, and recipients. Working together with its partners – the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Corporate Citizenship Center, the Council on Foundations, and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) – Foundation Center will continue to track the global response to the Ebola crisis and report its findings. 

-- Andrew Grabois

Glasspockets Find: Ask Me Anything
October 3, 2013

(Rebecca Herman is Special Projects Associate for Glasspockets at the Foundation Center-San Francisco.)

Spreddit8You may know the social news website Reddit for its humorous photos, videos and links to articles about hot topics. One of the most popular content areas is IAmA (or "I Am A…"), where users may participate in "AMAs" (for "Ask Me Anything"). AMAs are a forum for interviews on any topic, and there are several live AMAs scheduled everyday. Any Reddit user may post a question or comment and vote topics “up” or “down”, so the collective response informs how the Q&A appears, and how it is ranked within the Reddit site.

The topics and seriousness of the Reddit users’ questions vary widely, but it is great to see some very direct inquiries that touch on challenges in the nonprofit sector.

A few foundations and philanthropic organizations have participated in AMAs in the past few years—most notably Bill Gates, of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as reported on our blog earlier this year. Among the recent Reddit AMAs from the nonprofit and philanthropic sector are the Himalayan Cataract Project and Give2Asia. The topics and seriousness of the Reddit users’ questions vary widely, but it is great to see some very direct inquiries that touch on challenges in the nonprofit sector. Here is an excerpt from the AMA with Dr. Matt Oliva, a Himalayan Cataract Project board member:

redishhead: What types of resistance, if any, do you come up against when providing healthcare in other countries with laws and values?

mattoliva: Good question. It is important that US doctors working in other countries work within the current medical system and the local providers. We always get a local medical license if possible. We also strive to "never leave a patient behind" and ensure that the local partner can provide followup if there are any complications. Long term success requires a collaborative relationship with the local medical team and empowering them. If the quality of the service is high, even the poorest people will recognize this quality and seek the service. Many organizations and doctors can do more harm than good with the "fly in/fly out" model of care.

Give2Asia participated in a Reddit AMA about earthquake and tsunami recovery work in Japan that included advice on disaster giving and real-life lessons from the field:

macdaddy0086: How difficult was the whole thing?

give2asia: Every disaster is different, but this was one of the most difficult disasters I’ve worked on. It was a triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear) that affected over 420mi of coastline.

In the beginning, it was made even more complex because many NGOs and NPOs were waiting to hear the government’s response, so there was a fair amount of waiting, and a lack of coordination between them. For a time, they were limiting access to the area, and permits were required to enter. Even the humanitarian response was strictly measured, since the country has such a strong focus on equality. We’d never seen that before in any disaster, and it added a measure of complexity.

Only three days after the MacArthur Foundation announced its 2013 Fellows last month, new fellows Kyle Abraham and Jeremy Denk participated in an AMA. Here is the most popular exchange, as voted on by Reddit users:

aedwards044: What do ya'll intend to do with the Fellowship stipend?

MacArthurFellows [Kyle Abraham]: I still owe over 100k in student loans :-/ I'm hoping to get rid of those completely... Other than that, I'm hoping to work with a financial advisor to see how I can really work on building my company structure for the long haul. We recently found an affordable plan for health care for our company and plan on implementing that as of October 1st. That was already in the works, but now I know that we'll actually be able to pull it off for sometime to come!

Do you think AMAs are a tool that can make philanthropic work more accessible? Let us know if you have participated and what you have learned. And if you would like to read the Reddit AMAs without the extensive comments, I definitely recommend skimreddit.

-- Rebecca Herman

Beyond Alphabet Soup: 5 Guidelines For Data Sharing
August 29, 2013

(Andy Isaacson is Forward Deployed Engineer at Palantir Technologies. This blog is re-posted from the Markets for Good blog. Please see the accompanying reference document: Open Data Done Right: Five Guidelines – available for download and for you to add your own thoughts and comments.)

The BaIsaacson-100tcomputer was ingenious. In the 1960s Batman television series, the machine took any input, digested it instantly, and automagically spat out a profound insight or prescient answer – always in the nick of time (watch what happens when Batman feeds it alphabet soup). Sadly, of course, it was fictional. So why do we still cling to the notion that we can feed in just any kind of data and expect revelatory output? As the saying goes, garbage in yields garbage out; so, if we want quality results, we need to begin with high quality input. Open Data initiatives promise just such a rich foundation.

High quality, freely available data means hackers everywhere, from Haiti to Hurricane Sandy, are now building the kinds of analytical tools we need to solve the world’s hardest problems.

Presented with a thorny problem, any single data source is a great start – it gives you one facet of the challenge ahead. However, to paint a rich analytical picture with data, to solve a truly testing problem, you need as many other facets as you can muster. You can often get these by taking openly available data sets and integrating them with your original source. This is why the Open Data movement is so exciting. It fills in the blanks that lead us to critical insights: informing disaster relief efforts with up-to-the-minute weather data, augmenting agricultural surveys with soil sample data, or predicting the best locations for Internally Displaced Persons camps using rainfall data.

High quality, freely available data means hackers everywhere, from Haiti to Hurricane Sandy, are now building the kinds of analytical tools we need to solve the world’s hardest problems. But great tools and widely-released data isn’t the end of the story.

At Palantir, we believe that with great data comes great responsibility, both to make the information usable, and also to protect the privacy and civil liberties of the people involved. Too often, we are confronted with data that’s been released in a haphazard way, making it nearly impossible to work with. Thankfully, I’ve got one of the best engineering teams in the world backing me up – there’s almost nothing we can’t handle. But Palantir engineers are data integration and analysis pros – and Open Data isn’t about catering to us.

It is, or should be, about the democratization of data, allowing anybody on the web to extract, synthesize, and build from raw materials – and effect change. In a recent talk to a G-8 Summit on Open Data for Agriculture, I outlined the ways we can help make this happen:

#1 – Release structured raw data others can use

#2 – Make your data machine-readable

#3 – Make your data human-readable

#4 – Use an open-data format

#5 – Release responsibly and plan ahead

Abbreviated explanations below. Download the full version here: Open Data, Done Right: Five Guidelines.

#1 – Release structured raw data others can use

One of the most productive side effects of data collection is being able to re-purpose a set collected for one goal and use it towards a new end. This solution-focused effort is at the heart of Open Data. One person solves one problem; someone else takes the exact same dataset and re-aggregates, re-correlates, and remixes it into novel and more powerful work. When data is captured thoroughly and published well, it can be used and re-used in the future too; it will have staying power.

Release data in a raw, structured way – think a table of individual values rather than words – to enable its best use, and re-use.

#2 – Make your data machine-readable.

Once structured, raw data points are integrated into an analysis tool (like one of the Palantir platforms), a machine needs to know how to pick apart the individual pieces.

Even if the data is structured and machine readable, building tools to extract the relevant bits takes time, so another aspect of this rule is that a dataset’s structure should be consistent from one release to the next. Unless there’s a really good reason to change it, next month’s data should be in the exact same format as this month’s, so that the same extraction tools can be used again and again.

Use machine-readable, structured formats like CSV, XML, or JSON to allow the computer to easily parse the structure of data, now and in future.

#3 – Make your data human-readable.

Now that the data can be fed into an analysis tool, it is vital for humans, as well as machines, to understand what it actually means. This is where PDFs come in handy. They are an awful format for a data release as they can be baffling for automatic extraction programs. But, as documentation, they can explain the data clearly to those who are using it.

Assume nothing – document and explain your data as if the reader has no context.

#4 – Use an open-data format.

Proprietary data formats are fine for internal use, but don’t force them on the world. Prefer CSV files to Excel, KMLs to SHPs, and XML or JSON to database dumps. It might sound overly simplistic, but you never know what programming ecosystem your data consumers will favor, so plainness and openness is key.

Choose to make data as simple and available as possible: When releasing it to the world, use an open data format.

#5 – Release responsibly and plan ahead

Now that the data is structured, documented, and open, it needs to be released to the world. Simply posting files on a website is a good start, but we can do better, like using a REST API.

Measures that protect privacy and civil liberties are hugely important in any release of data. Beyond simply keeping things up-to-date, programmatic API access to your data allows you to go to the next level of data responsibility. By knowing who is requesting the data, you can implement audit logging and access controls, understanding what was accessed when and by whom, and limiting exposure of any possibly sensitive information to just the select few that need to see it.

Allow API access to data, to responsibly provide consumers the latest information – perpetually.


These guidelines seem simple, almost too simple. You might wonder why in this high tech world we need to keep things so basic when we have an abundance of technological solutions to overcome data complexity.

Sure, it’s all theoretically possible. However, in practice, anybody working with these technologies knows that they can be brittle, inaccurate, and labor intensive. Batman’s engineers can pull off extracting data from pasta, but for the rest of us, relying on heroic efforts means a massive, unnecessary time commitment – time taken away from achieving the fundamental goal: rapid, actionable insight to solve the problem.

There’s no magic wand here, but there are some simple steps to make sure we can share data easily, safely and effectively. As a community of data consumers and providers, together we can make the decisions that will make Open Data work.

-- Andy Isaacson

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About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the GlassPockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Candid highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

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